Microsoft shares trade secrets of Windows, Office

Microsoft on Thursday said it will give developers and customers free access to key application programming interfaces and documentation related to Windows software in a bid to increase interoperability, appease the open source community and European antitrust authorities.

The company said ensuring open connections, promoting data portability, supporting industry standards and reaching out to open source developers would be the pillars of its interoperability strategy, which will also include for the formation of a customer council. Microsoft will be publishing new APIs for Word, Excel and PowerPoint to make it easier to support other document formats. It will also hold labs, “plug-fests” and other events to help open source developers work with its platform. The decisions apply to many of Microsoft’s most popular products, including Windows Vista, SharePoint and Windows Server 2008, which will be launched in Canada next Wednesday.

Normally developers have to pay a trade secret licence to access information on Windows client or server protocols, but the decision by Microsoft will allow ISVs to get 30,000 pages of Windows information on MSDN. Microsoft promised it would not sue open source developers for using the documentation, APIs and protocols and would provide licences if needed at low royalty rates.

“We will continue to view (those APIs and protocols) as valuable and continue to monetize all users – not all developers – but all users of that technology,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told a teleconference. “From an economic perspective you could say we’re opening up, but at the same time we retain valuable intellectual property assets.”

Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief software architect, said the company’s moves would make it easier to create complex systems that demand better exchange of information, such as electronic health records and customer databases.

“Innovation tends to trump interoperability, data portability or any such concern,” he said. “We’ve progressively learned that documents and data have a lifetime that goes beyond any lifespan of the software used to create it.”

George Goodall, an analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group, noted that most Microsoft shops or channel partners already have access to the APIs and protocols it is publishing. Instead, the move is geared towards attracting a more broad base of developers at a more grassroots level, similar to the developer network which has sprung up around Facebook.

“Microsoft has a pretty impressive installed base when it comes to platforms like Exchange, SQL Server and SharePoint. These are used in a lot of companies, particularly mid-sized companies,” he said.

Microsoft’s launch earlier this week of its DreamSpark program, whereby it will provide expensive software free of charge to postsecondary students, is another example of the company’s efforts to earn developer loyalty, Goodall added.

The EU posted a statement which sounded a note of scepticism about the scope of the Microsoft interoperability strategy, but executives gave few comments on it.

“We’re not committing the company to mere words. We’re committing the company to action far beyond these words,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s legal counsel.

Goodall said Microsoft’s strategy transcends its conflicts with the European Commission.

“I think it’s more symptomatic of an overall maturation process in enterprise software,” he said. “There are super giants out there which have a lot of gravitational pull . . . orbiting them there are smaller, much more dynamic players, and that’s where a lot of the innovation is happening.”

Russell McOrmond, policy coordinator for the Canadian Linux Users’ Exchange and contributor to IT World’s Canada Enterprise Insights blog, suggested Microsoft’s strategy did not go far enough.

“The greatest barrier to interoperability comes in the form of patents and copyrights on interfaces, as well as legal protection for ties between encoded content and specific brands of access devices (sometimes called Digital Rights Management), he said. “While receiving documentation is convenient, not requiring permission to use the results of reverse engineering efforts is far more practical. Microsoft as a company has been lobbying governments hard, both directly and through lobby groups such as the BSA and IIPA, for laws in these areas which harm interoperability.”

Free or open source software cannot be licensed under reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) patents, McOrmond added, no matter how low the royalty rate is. “Microsoft could charge a billionth of a penny per copy, which would mean that proprietary software companies could sell up to a billion copies for a penny, but no FLOSS company could use the patented method at all,” he said.

Smith said Microsoft will publish many of the protocols related to Thursday’s announcement by June.

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